May 19, 2020

There was little specific today that anyone needs to pay attention to. If you are cooked, take a break with a clean conscience.

But for people who are interested, there were events today that advanced storylines we already knew.

There was disinformation dumped about former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. What purports to be audio clips of former Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry talking to then-President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine are circulating. They appear to show the men talking about firing Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, which was, of course, official U.S. policy at the time. But anti-Biden outlets are representing this conversation as proof that Biden was part of “international corruption and treason at the highest levels of government.”

Today, the White House released a previously classified email in which on the day of Trump’s inauguration, National Security Advisor Susan Rice recorded an account of a meeting that took place on January 5, 2017. In that meeting, FBI Director James Comey told President Barack Obama and some of his key advisors that he was concerned about Trump advisor Michael Flynn’s frequent communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

President Obama asked if there was reason for the National Security Council not to pass on to Flynn sensitive information about Russia. Comey answered “potentially.” He said he had no indication that Flynn was passing classified information to Kislyak, but that he was worried about the amount of communication between the two men. Obama asked Comey to let him know if anything happened that should change how the administration shared information with the incoming Trump administration. Comey said he would.

The Trump administration insists this email proves that the Obama administration illegally spied on his campaign, but it’s hard not to see this email as proof the Obama administration was trying to protect the nation without hamstringing Obama's successor. Rice’s email notes that President Obama stressed that he was not talking about law enforcement matters or investigations when he asked Comey to keep him apprised of any necessary changes to how his administration briefed the incoming Trump administration.

The release of this email brings up the elephant in the room, though. Why doesn’t the administration release the Flynn-Kislyak calls themselves? The more information they release about the calls, the odder it seems that they are not declassifying those. Former National Security Advisor Rice has called for the Trump administration to release the call transcripts. According to her spokesperson, “The American people deserve the full transcripts so they can judge for themselves Michael Flynn’s conduct.”

Also in the news today was a new story about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, it turns out, held expensive secret dinners for CEOs, Republican members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and right-wing media, paid for with public monies. The events do not appear to have been part of the State Department foreign policy mission, but rather were intended to cultivate Pompeo’s political career. They were parties hosted by him and his wife, who orchestrated them, although they were paid for out of a State Department fund called the “Emergencies in the Diplomatic and Consular Service Appropriation,” intended for use in the “confidential requirements in the conduct of foreign affairs as well as other authorized activities that further the realization of U.S. foreign policy objectives.”

This next story is more complicated, but it’s important: The Senate Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to approve Trump’s nomination of Texas congressman John Ratcliffe to become the next Director of National Intelligence, who oversees the seventeen agencies of the United States Intelligence Community. Trump had tried to name Ratcliffe to the position last summer, after getting rid of his first DNI, Dan Coats, and refusing to appoint Coats’s deputy director to take the job. Trump had to give up the plan when it turned out that Ratcliffe had misrepresented the few qualifications he claimed to have for the job, which the law states requires someone who has “extensive national security expertise.”

But Trump has regained his point by putting into office as acting DNI the Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who also has no experience in intelligence and who was clearly tapped to put the intelligence community under control of the White House. Grenell was vocal about his belief that Russia had not attacked us in 2016, despite the insistence of the intelligence community that it had. Grenell would have had to leave in mid-March unless Trump had nominated a new director who had not yet been confirmed. By nominating Ratcliffe, Trump had a win-win situation: either he kept Grenell or got Ratcliffe. Either are his loyalists.

The Senate does not have to tolerate the appointment of a person who does not meet the legal requirements for the job, and whose loyalty to the president raises concerns he will not work honestly with the intelligence community that is designed to protect our national safety. But Republicans who control the Senate are unwilling to challenge the president, and, as today’s vote shows, Democrats are powerless to stop them.

The nomination now goes to the full Senate.

Ian Millhiser of Vox has been following another complicated story from Georgia, a story that extends our understanding of Republican machinations to stay in power. There, a Georgia Supreme Court justice named Keith Blackwell announced in February that he would resign from his office just before his six-year term was to end on December 31. There was supposed to be an election this month to replace Blackwell. But when he announced he was resigning, the state’s secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, cancelled the scheduled election.

Instead, Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who was credibly accused of rigging his own election from his position as Georgia’s secretary of state overseeing that election, will replace Blackwell for the remaining few weeks of his term. But, because the Georgia constitution says a temporary replacement appointment serves “until January 1 of the year following the next general election which is more than six months after such person’s appointment,” Kemp has claimed the right to keep Blackwell’s replacement not only for the few weeks left of his term once he retires, but also for the two years following, until after the next general election in 2022. This will keep the seat in Republican hands and essentially turn Blackwell’s six-year term into an eight-year term. Both the Republican and the Democrat running to replace Blackwell sued to reinstate the election, but today the state Supreme Court rejected their suits by a vote of 6-2.

This new understanding of vacancy provisions will enable judges from the same political party as the governor to retire just before their terms end, giving the governor the chance to replace them and keep the seat for the party for two more years than the six-year term the constitution specifies.

As I reread this, it shocks me that I initially described these stories as nothing big to pay attention to, but rather as just more evidence of patterns we already knew. Any one of these things would have been a major story in any other administration, and together they sure look like the chipping away of our democracy.

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Notes:

Biden smears: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/a-new-round-of-biden-smears-launched-from-the-ukraine-fever-swamps

Rice email: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/19/michael-flynn-full-susan-rice-email-sent-on-trumps-inauguration-day-267998

https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/498658-susan-rice-renews-call-for-flynn-kislyak-transcripts-to-be-released

Graham and Trump: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/19/michael-flynn-full-susan-rice-email-sent-on-trumps-inauguration-day-267998

Pompeo dinners:

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/pompeo-s-elite-taxpayer-funded-dinners-raise-new-concerns-n1210746

Ratcliffe: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/the-senates-abdication-of-advise-and-consent/611368/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/john-ratcliffe-trumps-pick-for-top-intelligence-post-clears-divided-senate-panel/2020/05/19/63df252e-9952-11ea-ac72-3841fcc9b35f_story.html

Kemp: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/7/18071438/midterm-election-results-voting-rights-georgia-florida

https://www.vox.com/2020/3/16/21178993/georgia-republicans-cancel-election-brian-kemp-john-barrow

https://www.vox.com/2020/5/19/21262376/georgia-republicans-cancel-election-state-supreme-court-barrow-kemp-blackwell